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Stronger (2017)

An inspiring true-life story that still manages to stay grounded on its own terms, Stronger is an emotionally affecting movie buoyed by two sensational performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, an ordinary guy who is present at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and loses his legs in the attack. He was there to support his on-again off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Needless to say, his whole world changes and he has to adjust to a new life, a new identity, and the hardships placed upon others within his family sphere, especially Erin. This is a very solid meat and potatoes kind of drama. It’s not flashy or inventive but it has serious human drama and it treats it as such. I was on the verge of tears for a solid thirty minutes. Gyllenhaal delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance, burrowing into an average screw-up thrust into the national limelight. Everyone tells him he’s a hero, but he doesn’t feel it. Everyone wants a piece of him and his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) often blurs the line between pride in her son and exploitation. The colorful, coarse, dysfunctional family dynamic will remind many of 2010’s The Fighter. I greatly appreciated that even after the terrorist attack Jake is not canonized. He’s no saint just because something terrible happened to him. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) takes great care to keep the movie grounded even as it hits the standard inspirational notes, finding moments of grace in unexpected places and people. The backbone of Stronger is the thoroughly moving relationship between Jake and Erin. They have exchanges of both ferocious anger and deep tenderness. A post-amputation sex scene between them is so intimately filmed by Green that you almost feel like you’re intruding. Maslany (Orphan Black) can break your heart or make it melt just with an expression. The non-verbal acting in this movie is truly exceptional. Stronger is a strongly developed drama with characters that earn every one of your hard-fought tears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

nocturnal_animalsFashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.

Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.

maxresdefaultI grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.

Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.

Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.

nocturnal-animals-1I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.

I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Nightcrawler (2014)

nightcrawlerposterThe surprise of Nightcrawler is that it works well on different levels: as a psychological descent with a deranged lead, as a media critique on sensationalism, and as a genre thriller. Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) gives a truly transfixing performance as Leo Bloom, an ambitious sociopath who will stop at nothing to become the best at what he does. It so happens he films accident and crime footage to sell to the local news stations, and he’s not beyond getting his hands dirty if it means a better camera angle or a better payday. The actor reportedly lost 30 pounds and he appears otherworldly, his lanky frame and gaunt face making his bulging eyes pop. There’s a hypnotic intensity to his performance and a darkly comic irony that he speaks almost entirely in business buzzwords and jargon. The film chronicles his rise to power and how he uses his leverage to manipulate the people around him. The media satire is a little heavy-handed but still makes its points, especially in an age of scandal and hysteria. Rene Russo is also great as the desperate and bloodthirsty news producer who is charmed by Bloom but then gets too far in. Writer/director Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony) has crafted a haunting central figure that is morally repulsive yet entirely engaging, especially with a career-best performance from Gyllenhaal. He’s a fascinating psychological case, even if he remains relatively the same character from the start. He makes every moment an opportunity in suspense. Gilroy has a natural sense for visuals and especially how to pace his tension, drawing it out with precision in the final act as Bloom’s arrangements cause disaster. The nighttime Los Angeles setting and swirling tension remind me of Michael Mann’s Collateral. This is a movie that sticks with you long after thanks especially to the power of Gyllenhaal.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Prisoners (2013)

105270_galOne rainy Thanksgiving day, two little girls go missing. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), discover their two young daughters have gone missing. A manhunt is underway for a suspicious RV, spearheaded by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The RV is found with Alex Jones (Paul Dano) inside. The problem is that there is no physical evidence of the missing girls inside the RV and Alex has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. He’s being released and Keller is incensed. He’s certain that Alex is guilty and knows where his missing daughter is being held. One night, Keller kidnaps Alex and imprisons him in an abandoned building. He beats him bloody, demanding Alex to tell him the truth, but he only remains silent. Loki has to deal with finding the girls, finding a missing Alex, and trailing Keller, suspicious of foul play.

This is a movie that grabs you early and knows how to keep you squirming in the best ways. The anxiety of a missing child is presented in a steady wave of escalating panic. The moment when you watch the Dover and Birch families slowly realize the reality of their plight, well it’s a moment that puts a knot in your stomach. Prisoners is filled with moments like this, that make you dread what is to come next. The crime procedural elements of the case are generally interesting and well handled to the point that they feel grounded, that these events could transpire, including police mistakes. The central mystery sucks you in right away and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) lays out clues and suspects with expert pacing, giving an audience something new to think over.  At 153 minutes, there is a lot to chew over in terms of plot developments and character complications. It’s a compelling mystery yarn and shows such promise, though the last half hour cannot deliver fully. Fortunately, Prisoners is packed with terrific characters, a real foreboding sense of Fincher-esque chilly atmosphere from director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall). The film’s overall oppressive darkness is also notable for a mainstream release. The darkness doesn’t really let up. It’s hard to walk out feeling upbeat but you’ll be thankful for those punishing predicaments.

107713_galBy introducing the vigilante torture angle, Prisoners is given a dual storyline of suspense and intrigue. How far will Keller go? Will he get caught? What will his friends think? Will they be supportive or will they crack? How does this change Keller? That last question is the most interesting one. Others tell us how Keller is a good man, and he’s certainly a devoted family man, but does a good man imprison and torture a mentally challenged man? Does a good man take the law into his own hands? If it meant the difference between your child being dead or alive, how far would you go? These are the questions that bubble up and the movie makes you deal with them. The torture segments are unflinching and challenge your viewer loyalty. You will be placed in an uncomfortable moral position. Then there’s just the what-would-you-do aspect of the proceedings. Could you torture someone, possibly to death? Fortunately most of us will never have to find out. I do wish, however, that the movie had gone further, complicating matters even more severely. It becomes fairly evident halfway through that Alex is innocent. It would have been even more interesting to intensify Keller’s legal troubles. If the police have their man, what does Keller do with Alex? Does he let him live after everything Keller has done? I think it would have worked as a logical escalation and put the audience in an even more uncomfortable position, forcing us to question whether Keller deserves to get away with what he did or pay a price.

What separates Prisoners from other common thrillers, and what must have appealed to such an all-star cast, is the raised level of characterization on display. Jackman’s (Les Miserables) intensity is searing, as is his character’s sense of pain and futility. By all accounts, this is the best acting work Jackman has done in his career. Keller’s determination is all consuming, pushing away his doubts with his reliable pool of anger. Everyone is failing him so he feels he must take matters into his own hands, and the film does a fine job of relating his frustrations and urgency. But Keller is also in danger of derailing the ongoing investigation, becoming a liability to finding his daughter. This predicament pushes Loki into the tricky role of having to defuse parental intrusion, pushing him into a role he loathes, having to tell a harrowed father to back off. Loki is also consumed with the case, causing plenty of internal tumult and chaffing with the inefficiency and miscommunication of the police force. Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) doesn’t play his character big; he keeps it at a simmer, with hints of rage below the surface. His character is certainly richer than the Driven Cop we’ve often seen. His character is given less moral ambiguity but you feel his frustration working within the system and hitting dead ends. These two performers are both ticking time bombs.

The rest of the supporting cast has a moment or two to shine, though the characters are given less to work with. Bello (Grown Ups 2) is hastily disposed of from a plot standpoint by making her practically comatose with grief. Davis (The Help) knows how to make the most of limited screen time (see her Oscar nominated performance in 2008’s Doubt as evidence), and she’s heartbreaking in her moments of desperate pleading. Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) is meant as the foil to Keller, a voice of moral opposition, but Howard lets the gravity of his involvement in horrible acts hit you hard. Dano (Ruby Sparks) has the toughest part in many ways because of his character’s brokenness and the fact that he’s being tortured so frequently. It’s hard not to sympathize with him even if part of you suspects his guilt. Naturally, Dano is adept at playing weirdos. Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) is nearly unrecognizable as Alex’s older aunt caring for him. She’s prepared for the worst from the public but has some nice one-on-ones where she opens up about the difficulty of losing a child herself.

107719_galPrisoners is such a good mystery that it works itself into a corner to maintain it, ensuring that no real answer or final reveal will be satisfying, and it isn’t. I’m going to tiptoe around major spoilers but I will be delving into some specifics, so if you wish to remain pure, skip ahead. The culprit behind the child abductions, to put it mildly, is underwhelming and rather obtuse in their wicked motivation. The specified reason is to test people’s faith and turn them into monsters by abducting their children. This comes across as an awfully nebulous philosophical impetus, and it’s a motivating force that I find hard to believe even in the grimy, dark reality the movie presents. It just doesn’t feel grounded, more like a last-ditch conclusion to a TV procedural. However, what makes this ending worse is the false turns and red herrings that Prisoners utilizes. Every mystery requires some red herrings but they need to seem credible, and if executed properly, the characters will learn something useful through the false detour. The issue with Prisoners is that it establishes a secondary suspect that is so OBVIOUSLY the guilty guy, compounded with plenty of incriminating evidence including the missing children’s clothing covered in blood. When this suspect comes undone, his sketchy behavior starts to become a series of contrivances. They introduce a character that is too readily the guilty party, and then they just as easily undo him. And here’s another character of questionable motivation. Plus, there’s the central contrivance of having two characters that remain mute under all torturous circumstances unless the plot requires them to say something that can only be interpreted in an incriminating manner. These mounting plot contrivances, and an ending that wants to be ambiguous but in no way is, rob Prisoners of being the expertly crafted thriller it wants to be. It still hits you in the gut, but you’ll be picking it apart on the car ride home.

Grisly, morally uncomfortable, and genuinely gripping, Prisoners is a grownup thriller that isn’t afraid to go to dark places, with its characters and its plot. It hooks you early and keeps you on the hook, pushing its characters to make desperate decisions and asking you to think how you would perform under similar pressure. It’s a fascinating meta game and one that also adds extra intrigue to a rather intriguing mystery. It may not be revolutionary, but Prisoners is an above-average thriller with strong suspense and characterization. Where Prisoners stumbles is how it brings all this darkness to a close. The ending is rather perfunctory and not terribly satisfying; perhaps no ending would have been truly satisfying given the setup, but I’d at least prefer an alternative to the one I got, especially since it feels less grounded than the 140 minutes or so beforehand. It’s an ending that doesn’t derail the movie, but it certainly blunts the film’s power and fulfillment. Then again perhaps a word like “fulfillment” is the wrong term to use on a movie that trades in vigilante torture and the cyclical nature of abuse. In pursuit of perceived justice, what are we all capable of doing? The answer is likely surprising and disheartening for many, and Prisoners deserves credit for pushing its audience into uncomfortable positions and reflections.

Nate’s Grade: B

End of Watch (2012)

David Ayer has written seven movies and directed three, and almost all of them have followed the Los Angeles police department. The man wrote a character that got Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and from there it’s been all cops all the time, some dirty, some noble, but all residing in the LAPD. I suppose Ayer knows what he does best and is sticking to his wheelhouse. End of Watch is Ayer’s newest tale featuring one of the protagonists recording his activities on the force to put together for a documentary. And with that flimsy excuse, we have ourselves the first found footage cop drama.

Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two young police officers patrolling the mean streets of Los Angeles. Rather than dark and brooding, these guys are often quick with a joke and get along peachy. That doesn’t mean they don’t take their jobs seriously, and we watch them take down suspects, save children from burning buildings, and discover horrible mass slayings by Mexican cartels. During their off duty time, Taylor is dating a spunky woman (Anna Kendrick) whereas Mike has a wife (Natalie Martinez) and children of his own. The guys are honorable cops and run afoul of the local gang leader Big Evil (Maurice Compte), a man with connections to those dangerous cartels.

The best reason to watch End of Watch is the ebullient yet natural chemistry between Pena (World Trade Center) and Gyllenhaal (Source Code). These guys really come across like partners that have been through thick and thin. Their interaction is arguably the best part of the movie, watching two guys who defy cop movie stereotypes. First off, neither is naïve or world-weary; they’re idealistic but grounded. Both men get to be complex individuals, each funny, each warm, each flinty when called upon, each dealing with the heavy toll of protecting and serving, each an honorable police officer trying his best. These guys feel like real-life partners and not just Movie Partners, and that is a great testament to Ayer’s script and the performances by Pena and Gyllenhaal. I also appreciated that the guys are presented as co-leads; I would have assumed Gyllenhaal was going to anchor the movie. These guys really love one another and you understand their camaraderie. The actors went on ride alongs for a solid five months before shooting, and that must have been an invaluable tool for an actor because these guys are so natural with one another. They can bicker but it’s mostly playful, and the dialogue feels authentic and crisp. The performances are measured and meaty and we emotionally invest in these characters and fear for their welfare. These guys are great together and so you worry that we may not see them both live by the end credits.

These guys are such pals, you’ll start to ask yourself, “Hey, shouldn’t there be like some conflict some time?” For almost tow full acts, we are immersed in police procedure details, routines, mundane realities, with the occasional burst of action. Except it takes until the very end of Act Two before there’s a real conflict, one that lasts beyond an individual sequence. These guys are so chummy, so lovingly buddy-buddy, so there’s no tangible conflict between the two of them. The LAPD seems mostly supportive despite some paranoid warnings that do not bear fruit. Even the local thug, Big Evil, doesn’t prove to be an active threat until the Mexican cartel pays him to kill our lead cops (the cartel also wants an expense report of the hit). But this threat doesn’t emerge until well into the film, so much so that the plot feels rather aimless, like we’re on one eternal ride along with our boys in blue. It’s a good thing I enjoy their company.

Here’s why I speculate why Ayer chose to tell his story through the guise of found footage. I don’t out rightly see it as a cash grab, Ayer’s attempt to repackage something old with something new (that is quickly becoming something old). Ayer is not particularly dogmatic about the found footage approach; often we’ll get first-person angles, gun POV angles, or just general angles that could not have been captured through the found footage mechanics. I think Ayer chose this route because he felt it afforded him greater latitude to craft a realistic depiction of the daily grind of the embattled LAPD officer. This approach allows Ayer more freedom to flout cop movie clichés we’ve become well accustomed to. There are no wildly mismatched partners, no long gun heroics, and no long-suffering personal relationships. Though I find it extremely unbelievable that the LAPD would be so casual and blasé about an officer recording his activities and internal workings. That seems like an open invitation for a lawsuit or a subpoena especially if a criminal attorney gets wind. To a degree, the found footage edict works and the authenticity of End of Watch is never in question, but it also seems like Ayer’s convenient go-to excuse when you’re looking for that missing conflict. It is a fictional movie after all.

The visceral nature of the camerawork, and the extra emotional attachment we feel for the leads, makes for some pretty nail-biting suspense, though only after the cartel issues their hit. The movie teases you with a gutsy ending, one that exemplifies the men’s sense of brotherhood in arms and the fatalistic prospect of protecting the City of Angels. It felt fitting and poignant. I was surprised that Ayer was taking an audience in this direction… and then he didn’t. The film chickens out and gives us a miraculous plot turn that also reinforces the Hollywood pecking order of racial significance. It’s a misstep and one that costs End of Watch from being more emotionally resonant.

As a side note, I’m not a prude when it comes to the use of salty language. Films that reflect certain realities should not curtail the way people genuinely speak. Some people just have filthy mouths. However, the profanity level in End of Watch is off the chart, notably concerning the character of Big Evil. I am dead certain that every second or third word out of this guy’s mouth is some variation of the f-word. If you catalogued all of his dialogue, I bet over 75% of total words would be profanity. It starts to get ridiculous and even funny when you hear nothing but the same three words during an angry outburst. And this is no David Mamet or Kevin Smith poetic composition of vulgarity and the profane; this is just lazy dialogue, like Ayer told his actor that, when in doubt, let loose a litany of f-bombs. Perhaps Big Evil would be less evil if people just helped him with his limited vocabulary.

End of Watch is an involving police procedural with some gripping moments of tension thanks to the stellar performances from its pair of police officers, Pena and Gyllenhaal. Ayer’s found footage motif gets some visceral excitement out of an old story, but what really sucks us in are the emotional bonds we’ve forged with these two men over the course of an hour. That makes the danger feel very dire. The movie feels like a bromance at times. I wish Ayer hadn’t pulled back from his more dour ending but it’s not enough to spoil what is an above average genre film with a spiffy new visual polish. I don’t know how many films Ayer can keep cranking out about the LAPD but as long as he pays due attention to character, and gives us the occasional break from the ubiquitous antihero with a badge, then at least he’ll keep making compelling genre cinema.

Nate’s Grade: B

Source Code (2011)

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train. His mind has been transplanted into the body of Sean Fentress, a doomed train passenger. Fentress, along with 200 others, were killed in an explosion on a commuter train heading in to Chicago. But this has all happened in the past. Colter has been quantum leaped into a top secret government program known as the source code. It uses people’s brain waves to simulate a recorded reality. The last thing Colter can remember is a firefight in Afghanistan, and now he’s aboard a train looking for a mad bomber. Whatever info he can retrieve will help the officials (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) prevent a second terrorist bombing scheduled that day. Colter only has eight minutes to interact with the train passengers and deduce who the bomber is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and the reality resets itself again. Things get even more complicated when he falls for Fentress’ fetching female friend Christina (Michelle Mongahan). Can he save her? Can he save anyone? Can he get out of the source code?

Source Code manages to be a twisty, trippy little film that doesn’t so much knock you out but definitely packs a bit of a punch. Its simplicity is its very best asset. There’s a bomb on a train (ignore the questionable movie sci-fi physics). Colter has exactly eight minutes to learn what he can before he and everybody else blows up. Then the fun starts anew. The movie is less a time-travel flick than an alternate reality sort of experiment. Personally, I love movies that present a timeline and then slowly thumb away at the edges, stretching the narrative space, showing the audience the various intricacies of this tiny world. Whether it’s Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day, or the propulsive fun of Run Lola Run, I enjoy a story that expands outward into a greater foundational complexity. I enjoy the clockwork of a story that shows me how the different pieces work together. I enjoy that through the variations I can experience a richer world, seeing what happens to a passenger as they leave the train, seeing how a character’s actions can impact another, seeing how altering that character’s action alters other forces in the story. That kind of narrative trickery, perfected in Groundhog Day, makes the story feel like a living creature because you witness the interconnected relationships of everything and everyone. It also makes it pretty fun to watch.

Director Duncan Jones makes slick use of tight spaces like he showcased in 2009’s celestial sci-fi thriller, Moon. The quick pacing and collective rhythm of the movie helps contribute to its entertainment factor. Source Code is playful enough in design and execution. It remains consistently clever with its plotting, but what’s really surprising is that Jones is able to find a personal human story inside all the thriller trappings. Colter is trying to make sense of his situation, but he’s also trying to reconcile the idea of life, death, fate, and getting to speak with his parents who assume he was killed in Afghanistan (he’s been with the source code project for over two months). There’s a human face to all this, and while the love story feels tacked on and underdeveloped, Colter’s emotional turmoil and existential struggles to reassert his identity and find some peace from his life ring true. Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia) is an ever capable lead who takes a near Hitchcockian leading man role and plays it straight to fine effect.

At the same time, Source Code tries to have it all with an ending that I don’t truly believe it pulls off. Spoilers will lurk, so skip the next two paragraphs those who wish to remain pure and chaste. The film does a fairly nimble job of setting up an appropriate, if mostly downbeat, ending. Colter doesn’t want to be a brain in a box; he doesn’t want the government using him as their newest tool for the rest of his unnatural days. He was pulled from the brink of death and he now just wants to die in peace. In the recorded reality of the source code, he’s allowed the chance that most of us will never have – he can find closure. Whereas he would have died on a desert battlefield, now Colter has an opportunity to speak to his father one last time, to say goodbye. The entire denouement of Source Code seems to be establishing a memorial for the people who were lost on that train, because once the source code is erased so too will they be. They’re electronic recreations but in the end it reminds you that they were real people, and now they get something of a proper sendoff, a fairly touching memorial to the people who will just be seen as numbers in a news report.

And then… just as Colter makes peace with passing over, he passes over into another reality. The train doesn’t blow up. The people are able to get off. He gets to walk hand-in-hand with his new sweetheart. Jones doesn’t make it clear what really happens, which can lead to some mounting confusion. Did they really alter the past? Did they create a parallel dimension? In one dimension is everyone on the train dead whereas in another everyone lives, short of Sean Fentress? And how crappy is that? Yes, Gyllenhaal is a charming and terrific looking guy, but does no one shed a tear for the fact that he stole another man’s body? Sean Fentress may not have had the courage to ask out his pretty friend, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to have his identity hijacked and his existence more or less erased from time and space. It’s a weird blemish that the filmmakers don’t truly want to address, and why would they? The ending lacks commentary of any sort strictly because the movie wants to have it all. It wants the sad, mournful ending, it wants the happy “Everything’s gonna be okay” ending. It almost let’s you choose. But Source Code doesn’t come across so much as a film that begs to be opened for different interpretations so much as a film that didn’t want to upset anyone by picking an ending.

Source Code is nicely paced, nicely plotted, and it produces just as many intriguing questions as it does substantial thrills. Jones finds interesting ways to make the same material different. The various characters, converging storylines, and science-fiction mumbo jumbo are all nicely woven into a satisfying bite-sized sci-fi thriller. It fumbles with the landing, in my view; it seems like a pandering appeal to please every faction of the audience, or at least to confuse them with the illusion that they have gotten what they wanted. This is an intellectual sci-fi potboiler in disguise as a thriller. Roll with it, play along, don’t think too hard about the moral implications of its murky ending, and enjoy the ride.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

Director Edward Zwick has spent the last two decades making mass-friendly action films with designed to teach us all some valuable lesson, like Blood Diamond and Glory. But the idealistic filmmaker began his career with realistic relationship dramas like About Last Night and the seminal TV show thirtysomething. There wasn’t an explosion to be had, unless you count the emotional ennui of middleclass white people. Love and Other Drugs is adapted from the biography of a Viagra salesman, which seems like a strange jumping off point for a romantic drama. Watch out for those unexpected side effects.

It’s 1996, and Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a smooth-talking, suave pharmaceutical rep for the medical giant Pfizer. He’s been dispatched to the Ohio River valley area with a mission to push his drug samples on doctors and raise his quotas. While posing as an intern, he meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a coffee shop beauty in stage one of Parkinson’s (don’t attack me, they reveal this spoiler before you even see Hathaway’s face). She spurs his advances but he persists, and the two agree to a strictly sexual relationship. Because of her illness, Maggie is wary of getting attached to people. She sees Jamie as a shallow, well-muscled lunkhead who won’t want anything else but a slew of orgasms from a pretty girl. And Jamie is content, until, of course, he falls in love. Maggie feels she’s sparing her lover the pains that will accompany her Parkinson’s. The two struggle with her illness, the toll it takes on their relationship, and the possible future they will have together… in between lots of sex.

The true pleasure of Love and Other Drugs is watching Hathaway and Gyllenhaal together onscreen. The Brokeback Mountain buddies have tremendous chemistry that makes their give-and-take exciting and pleasing. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal may be the best onscreen couple I’ve seen since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Chemistry is such an indelible component for romance and yet it is so elusive to capture. So when a cinematic couple really create some serious sparks, it’s a memorable exchange. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are a terrific team but also the rare screen couple that raises the performance of their partner. You are easily convinced that these two enjoy the company of one another; they’re so confident with each other even as they’re tumbling around naked. Hathaway has grown into an actress of surprising range, making keen use of her animated Disney heroine features. She has a knack for playing defiant, spunky women that have an alluring fragility, and that also describes her Maggie (how does a coffee shop give Hathaway the health insurance she needs for Parkinson’s meds?). Gyllenhaal has always had his boyish charm, but he seems catapulted to new charisma heights with Love and Other Drugs. He’s exploding with energy and comes across bursting with life onscreen. He starts as a suave Lothario drunk on his own charms but, as movie journeys dictate, he morphs into a committed, mature man. The roles are pretty standard (slick selfish salesman, sad girl with illness) but the duo bring extra vitality and heat that makes Love and Other Drugs compulsively watchable in its finer moments.

It’s refreshing to witness a major Hollywood movie that treats human sexuality without the standard artifices of Hollywood. Love and Other Drugs is not coy when it comes to physical lovemaking. This isn’t a blockheaded movie where the woman goes through the entire night of passion while wearing a bra the entire time (the epitome of PG-13 sex). This isn’t a movie where after a healthy bout of sex the couple feels the need to cover up their goods as they lay beside one another. Like after a vigorous sexual experience now the lovers suddenly become bashful at their own state of nakedness (get the fig leaves – stat!). So it’s refreshing to watch a film deal with sexuality without giving undue attention to how “risqué” everything is. The nudity is European-style casual, and while the film manages to be quite sexy, the nudity and sex scenes do not play as shameless titillation. The sex and copious nudity is just another part of the storytelling. Of course it also happens to be a prominent and highly marketable storytelling aspect. It’s not like Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are homely actors. Watching beautiful people writhe together on screen and nonchalantly walk around without a stitch on has always been a sure-fire way to sell tickets. Love and Other Drugs utilizes all that skin to lure boys into a traditional romantic drama. It’s to Zwick’s writing and directing credits, and the natural chemistry of his two high-wattage stars, that the parade of flesh doesn’t feel like naked, prurient exploitation. It’s not exactly an edgy film by any means but it’s assuredly adult in its portrayal of sexuality. Or at least it thinks it is. The sex isn’t really a topic to be explored with nuance and clarity; it’s more something to keep the actors busy.

Ultimately, the tonal inconsistency is what hampers the momentum of Love and Other Drugs. It’s hard to build narrative momentum when the film just seems to be starting over time and again. Zwick bounces around different tones, sometimes wildly from scene to scene. At heart it’s a weepie romance, the sick girl and her paramour coming to terms with their doomed love. But then the movie also wants to be an energetic, smart-alecky comedy, then there are all sorts of crude gags (hope you like boner jokes), and then the film also wants to be a satire on high-powered pharmaceutical companies and their sleazy influence romancing doctors. And then in between all that is the weepie drama stuff as Maggie has to deal with the (movie) realities of her illness. Here’s an example of the tonal whiplash that did the movie no favors: Jamie stumbles in on his disgusting younger brother (see below) masturbating to a sex tape of Jamie and Maggie, of his own brother and his brother’s girlfriend. The scene is played for broad comic laughs and ends with Jamie beating his brother off screen with that very sex tape. If people needed another reason not to make sex tapes, here it is: Josh Gad might one day view them and pleasure himself. You don’t want that, trust me. But then the very next scene involves Maggie working on her art and unable to control her Parkinson’s symptoms, namely finger tremors. We watch as Maggie diligently and patiently tries to open a bottle of pills, the childproof locked top confounding her stubborn fingers, only to eventually find that the bottle is empty and her symptoms will only increase. The fact that these scenes coexist right next to one another makes their differences all the more jarring. Love and Other Drugs tries to jostle diverse genres but the different tones never coalesce. As a result, you feel violently ripped from one movie to another.

Let me give due attention to just how revolting the character of Jamie’s younger brother is. Josh is a cancer on the movie. He doesn’t make a scene better but rather drags it down to a lower level. He’s slovenly, boorish, coarse, and routinely unfunny. You can practically feel his sweaty fingerprints pawing at the movie for attention. This character is abominable and repulsive. He inserts himself into Jamie’s home and offers no dramatic value. His purpose seems to be solely as a cheap go-to plot device whenever Zwick feels he needs a random profane joke. Gad (The Rocker, 21) is a comic that I have enjoyed in other contexts, but he’s got the wrong energy and feel here, succumbing to the angry desperation of his character. Josh serves no worthwhile purpose and just becomes a pathetic distraction for a movie that already doesn’t seem to have full focus on what matters. He’s supposed to be an annoying presence but this annoying? You probably won’t find a more unnecessary and loathsome fictional character in a movie all year.

Zwick can’t keep tired clichés from clipping how high the film can fly. The film’s message about family over business feels trite no matter how much nudity tries to obfuscate it. The Parkinson’s angle is too easily transformed into melodrama. The film takes a trip to a Parkinson’s meeting in Chicago with real-life people suffering through different stages of the debilitating disorder. It draws a poor comparison with Maggie’s tremors, which start to seem like a lightweight Hollywood example of illness (like when a character coughs onscreen and it somehow communicates a quickly metastasized cancer). Even after shirking Hollywood conventions the movie manages to end in that tried-and-true fashion where the man has to chase after the woman to give the Big Speech about how he truly feels. The Pfizer storyline that follows the launch of impotence-crushing super drug Viagra feels like the first draft of a different screenplay or the last remnants of a different story that’s been hollowed out. It’s fairly superficial and meant to serve merely as the male lead’s occupation that he has to reconsider when love’s on the line. The side stories and side characters feel like distractions. Oliver Platt is a fine actor to have in your movie, just make sure he has something to do other than drive Gyllenhaal around. Also, the movie follows the lead from the cancelled TV show Cold Case in that every scene from the past has to be accompanied by some generic hit of the day, like a simplistic scrapbook of the times.

Love and Other Drugs feels tragically overextended and if only Zwick had only been more judicious this could have been a really solid film. There are three or four different films at play here. The tone never settles down, bouncing from broad comedy to weepie Lifetime-related drama. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway work wonders together with and without clothes. Their performances make the film stronger, and they make you wish that the movie had more going on for it than spirited rolls in the hay. You even wish there was more to the sex than simply large amounts of it. Zwick will always wear his liberal idealism on his sleeve and slip a message into his films, but this time the message is completely eaten alive. If anybody walks away from Love and Other Drugs with a blinding passion for prescription drug reform, then they must have been watching a different movie. The one I watched was amusing in spurts and had nudity.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Times (2010)

This video game adaptation has the curious distinction of being both too simplistic and too complicated, sometimes in the very same breath. The harried screenplay could have used a lot more clarity concerning back-story, exposition, character roles, setting, rules of this Middle Eastern time period, supernatural rules, etc. At the same time, Prince of Persia is saddled with a pretty dopey story with weak characters. The plot is far too repetitious; somebody has the magic dagger that can turn back time, they lose it, they regain it, they lose it, repeat for over an hour. It feels like the story is never getting anywhere despite the fact that new, and still weak, characters are being introduced. The tone and look of the movie feels too beholden to its video game roots; the action is momentarily rousing but then seems overly coordinated to squeeze in all the game’s special signature moves. You’ll grow tired of all the wall flipping, wondering if a controller is stuck somewhere. For a movie dealing with a time-traveling dagger, give me more time travel. This fantastic plot device is used too sparingly in a ho-hum plot about an adopted son (Jake Gyllenhall, buff and with a sporting accent) of the king being accused of killing the king. Despite the Disney name, this feels less like a Pirates of the Caribbean knockoff and more cut from the same cloth that gave us the Mummy sequels. It’s loud, stuffed with empty special effects, and feels like junk food for your brain but it’s not even good junk food. Weirdest of all, the movie is one big metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq (acting on false intelligence about some country aiding an enemy by manufacturing weapons). Seems Prince of Persia is Hollywood’s second attempt to rewrite our past political blunders in the Gulf and come up with a dubious happy ending.

Nate’s Grade: C

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac is something altogether different from a genre best known for cannibalism, skin suits, and express shipping of human heads. It has more in common with All the President’s Men than director David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, Seven. This is a serial killer thriller steeped in police procedural, closed door deliberations, and the slow drip of a decades long investigation into the Zodiac killings that terrorized California from the 1960s and 70s. Watching close to 3 hours of procedure with nary a car chase or a shoot-out may not sit right for fans of the genre, but I enjoyed the film for the same reasons people will decry it — the details. I loved how methodical this film is, how dogged and stubborn it is, and I found myself being enveloped into the minutia of the case.

It all began with a young couple looking for a bit of privacy in 1968. They park at a lover’s lane and nervously engage in a bit of the old “neckin.” A passing car interrupts them, and then that car returns with its headlights blasting into the couple’s faces. This man then takes out a gun and starts firing, killing the woman and badly injuring the young man. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when a curious letter has stirred up a lot of discussion. It’s a cryptic message with a puzzle attached made up of symbols and codes. The author demands his puzzle run in the newspaper, and if not, more will suffer at his hands. There are further attacks along the California coast and the mysterious figure finally gives himself a name at the end of one of his letters: Zodiac.

San Francisco detectives David Toschi (a great, raspy Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are called in after Zodiac executes a cab driver in the city. The Chronicle‘s star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), pesters the police for details and eventually gets under Zodiac?s skin. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case through a life-long love of puzzles and the case eventually consumes him, dooming his marriage to a pretty girl (Chloe Sevigny). Thanks to the tutelage of Avery, Graymsith becomes an amateur detective of his own, and his zeal to solve the case outlasts the actual police.

The Zodiac killer was really the first mass media serial killer. As the news of brutal attacks spreads, the media ate it all up and enlarged the figure of Zodiac to grand heights. And he was eager to help inflate his image, taking credit for crimes and slayings that were not his doing. The killer used the media age to terrorize the populace and increase his notoriety, similar tactics used by today’s stream of terrorists. The detectives didn’t just have to navigate all the shifting evidence but the formation of an urban legend.

This is before the day of DNA and super computers, so all progress comes from good old-fashioned police work. Long hours are spent pouring over mounting evidence while coordinating around bureaucracy; because Zodiac has struck in several different small communities it can take a saint’s patience to figure out the correct jurisdiction and compile the various parts in various offices. The film packs a lot in its running time introducing scores of information, suspects, witnesses, and varying theories, but the film cannot be faulted for pace; nearly every scene takes place weeks, months, even years after the last.

Zodiac is Fincher’s most restrained work even at a gargantuan running length. Fincher is a master tactician with slick visuals but has a penchant for getting too dazzled by needless visual flourishes (did the camera really need to zoom through the handle of a coffee pot in Panic Room?). He tones down the excess but still maintains a refined visual palate that makes the film feel fluid. The period detail is incredibly reconstructed, giving an authentic feel for a very serious story. But Fincher knows that with Zodiac the impetus lies with the story, and he devotes his considerable style to the service of the story. The mood balances nicely with intrigue, humor (after Zodiac singles out Avery fellow journalists start wearing “I’m Not Avery” buttons), and some truly terrifying moments involving the Zodiac attacks. The violence is sparse but when it does occur it is shocking, particularly watching a knife plunge repeatedly into the writhing body of a woman at a lake. One key element of sustaining such an ominous mood is fabulous song selection. Very often pop songs can be counter-productive to a movie, coming across as a lazy attempt to cobble together a soundtrack to shill. With Zodiac, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” becomes a powerfully haunting medley for the killer and the sonic linchpin for the film.

Fincher does an excellent job of transporting us back in time and recreating the sense of paranoia that grappled many. There is a great scene late in the film where Graysmith comes to the sudden realization that he may have walked right into the spider’s parlor. The scene plays out to an agonizingly uncomfortable length, and you too feel like running out the door as fast as your legs can take you. By not knowing definitively who the Zodiac may be, the film gets a boost of suspense from a multitude of creepy suspects. In an interesting decision, Fincher uses different actors of different shape during the Zodiac attacks, playing against the varying reports from witnesses and survivors.

There?s a sizeable danger trying to find a climax to a case that remains open to this day and where no one has been officially charged. Zodiac does as good a job as possible to present a fitting, mostly satisfying conclusion. The movie presents the best theory and points a convincing finger at who Zodiac perhaps really was.

Zodiac is expertly crafted but has a handful of minor flaws that hold it back. The overall script is rather nimble with how it dishes new information to digest, however the intricacies can amass and become too great, and some scenes congest too much without needed forward momentum which causes the flow to get caught up in an expository pile-up. Still, the film is demanding but not overwhelming and not without reward. The film follows the ups and downs of the Zodiac investigation, and that means characterization runs short and simple. I fear the only false note amongst a vastly talented cast is Gyllenhaal, an actor I adore. He works fine in the portrayal of a young kid in the newsroom trying his hand at crime solving, but it’s the film’s second half where the actor falters. He fails to sell the obsession and desperation that dominates his life, instead looking wiped out but no worse for wear, like the temporary results of an all-nighter before a big test.

It was five years since Fincher’s last film, and he wasn’t sitting on his laurels when he crafted Zodiac, an exceptionally intelligent and demanding movie. Decades pass, suspects weave in and out, evidence and testimony contradict one another, it’s all a lot to keep track of but I found myself absorbed in the case just like Graysmith. This is a serial killer movie that could bring the smarts back and redefine the genre, that is, if fans are willing to sit through 3 hours of police work. If not, well they might get their kicks out of the more genre loyal The Zodiac, released in 2006. And that movie’s only 97 minutes long.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Go ahead and work the snickers out of your system. Brokeback Mountain has been dubbed “that gay cowboy movie,” and been condemned by certain fundamentalist Christian organizations as “a very dangerous and insidious message to America.” But what message is Ang Lee’s film even putting out there? It seems to me that Brokeback Mountain is putting a human face on a slur, making homosexuals look like you or me. For some that prospect may be terrifying. The movie is playing well on the blue-state coasts, expectedly, but it’s also surprisingly playing well in America’s heartland. It seems that people are lining up all over to see a movie about two gay cowboys in love. And perhaps the more people that witness Brokeback Mountain, the harder it will be to listen to those so-called family advocacy groups with their sterling Christian morals. Maybe people will really see what’s behind many of the words of outcry – hate and ignorance (I am in no way insinuating that disliking the flick means you are homophobic). Despite all this political talk, Brokeback Mountain is by no means a political movie. It’s a love story, above all, and it’s a doozy.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a quiet man looking for work in rustic Wyoming. He finds a job as a sheep herder working atop the canyons and mountains of Brokeback. Working alongside Ennis is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charismatic rodeo rider. The weeks are long and Ennis and Jack are all the company they have, excluding the hundreds of sheep they tend. Eventually, the more taciturn Ennis finally opens up and bonds with his herding partner. “That’s more words than you’ve spoken in two weeks,” Jack says. “Hell,” Ennis adds, “That’s the most I’ve spoken in a year.” The rules have been laid out: every night one man sleeps in a tent campsite, the other sleeps next to the sheep to guard them. Well one night Ennis has had too much whisky and cannot make it back to the sheep. Jack invites him to sleep in the tent instead of freezing outside. Then something surprising takes place – both men have an alcohol-fueled bout of rough sex. The next morning both men stress they “ain’t queer,” but they have a hard time fighting their feelings inside. Ennis warns that, “If this thing, it grabs hold of us again… at the wrong place… at the wrong time… and we’re dead.” He recounts a childhood memory where his father showed him the corpse of an older homosexual man, brutally beaten and mutilated. For them, their love must stay on Brokeback Mountain.

photo157qoThe men part ways. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), a quiet woman after his own heart, and fathers two daughters. In Texas, Jack meets fellow rodeo rider Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and gets involved in a relationship with her, fathering a son of his own. But Jack still thinks of his Brokeback pal and sends him a postcard. Ennis nearly lights up at the returned sight of Jack and the two passionately embrace. He tells Alma that Jack is an old “fishing buddy” and they sneak away every few months for a fishing getaway. Really the men are returning to the countryside to rekindle the love that they haven’t left behind. But can they keep their love a secret, and should they even have to?

I wonder if Lee would ever have directed this if 2003’s Hulk didn’t bomb so badly. Lucky for us, he’s taken the Brokeback helm and infuses lots of emotion into the story. The Wyoming countryside (actually Canada, but it’s all close enough) is gorgeous, and the film has a great earthy feel. Best of all, Lee allows his love story to breathe and go at its own pace, never cutting corners or rushing an emotion. There’s a lovely, lilting feel to the film, and Lee’s guided hand allows the story to play out to its grand promise. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Proulx’s 11-page short story, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show) have given incredible depth and subtext to the tale. McMurtry, in particular, has great knowledge of the West and the cowboy lifestyle, and the screenplay gives you an idea of small-town Western life. There are a few moments at bars, social scenes, stores, but they brilliantly give you every detail you’d need to know about this way of life. I even loved how the people of Wyoming wore fashions that were five years removed from their height of popularity, which is exactly how fashion moves around to the smaller parts of America. Ossana and McMurtry are also commended for presenting their characters as people first and never as agenda bulletins. All three lend a level of authenticity that makes the story feel organic and never trite.

In films about forbidden desire and heartbreak, the acting is the cornerstone for how powerful the tale resonates. The acting in Brokeback Mountain is phenomenal. Ledger is the breakout star and the majority of the film’s focus. He gives the performance of his life (I know, not saying much). Ledger is outstanding as the reserved, taciturn Ennis, brought to believe that queers were something sub-human and now he wrestles with his own identity. He may be a restrained man of few words but you see every emotion bubble under the surface, every conflict played out in his eyes. Ledger’s few violent or emotional outbursts are startling because they show an uncontrollable feeling, one even he can’t withhold 24/7.

Gyllenhaal has the showier role but masterfully displays the frustration of forbidden love. He’s willing to sacrifice everything for Ennis, and the fact that Ennis won’t do likewise tears him apart. Isn’t love enough, he wonders. There’s a moment in the film that so sharply displays Jack and Gyllenhaal as an actor. It involves two different shots in a moving truck. The first is Jack headed to Ennis’ ranch, singing, bouncing, and with a wall-to-wall smile. The second is Jack driving away from the ranch unfulfilled, sullen, broken, and seemingly unable to cry another tear. It’s two small moments and they sum up Jack and Gyllenhaal perfectly. The only thing unsettling about Gyllenhaal’s performance is his late 70s porn star ‘stach. With his tremendous work in Jarhead and now Brokeback Mountian, Gyllenhaal is in class all his own (he’s got the dreamiest doe-eyes in Hollywood).

The ladies of Brokeback Mountain have less screen time to play with but they each deliver fine performances. Williams is a silent, put-upon mother and is shattered when she discovers her husband’s secret love. She just crumbles. She’s never the same and Williams showcases her character’s distress and mounting bitterness. One of the film’s highpoints is her confrontation with Ennis, many years later, finally sharing all that she knows. Me thinks an Oscar nod is headed in her post-Dawson’s Creek future. Hathaway plays quite an opposite character. She begins as a wild, headstrong cowgirl with a healthy sexual appetite, something perhaps Jack sees as a reflection of his self. Then their love dies at some point and she pours herself into work, but Hathaway illuminates every step along the way. Her small smile during a scene where Jack finally browbeats her obnoxious father is terrific. And girls, if you’re having trouble dragging your significant other to see Brokeback Mountain with you, remind them that both ladies get naked at some point.

This is an elegiac, engrossing love story. Brokeback Mountain is not necessarily a “gay thing,” more so it’s a story about forbidden love and about the consequences of moving forward without ever letting go. That sounds universal, right? Nothing “gay” about that. Brokeback Mountain explores the force of love and shows how uncontrollable and unpredictable it is. Jack and Ennis are just as surprised by their feelings and their rough night of passion as the audience, but the happiness they share is hard to argue.

photo_06Because of the film’s gentle pace, and Lee’s loose control, we really immerse ourselves in their relationship as they frit away the hours looking after sheep. There was a woman in my theater (I won’t name names, partly because I don’t know hers) who felt that Brokeback Mountain was far too slow and could have been put to better use by cutting 2 hours out. The film’s placid pace is integral to the story’s success; you need to see how expansive that countryside is to feel alone, you need to have the many small conversations to draw out a closer camaraderie, you need the added time to open up to these men, and then once you have –BAM! — they turn their worlds upside down. This buildup is necessary for our connection to the characters but it’s also essential so we can understand what happens. Yes, the film portrays love as it truly is: an all-encompassing emotion that can be as maddening as it is passionate. But Brokeback Mountain doesn’t dare introduce a gay romance, something so dangerous in this land, all lickity-split. It’s supposed to be a surprise to these men, grown up with John Wayne movies and strong, silent role models. The movie enjoyably takes its time to seduce an audience with its tale before choking out every last tear in the end.

The tragedy of Lee’s film is that these men have each found the love of their life but, because of society’s prejudices, are not allowed to act. As a result, each man puts on a different face and pretends they’re a happy heterosexual Western buck for the public, but each is being eaten away inside. Ennis drinks a lot and is full of self-loathing. Jack is less publicly reserved about his feelings and finds momentary comfort with other warm bodies, mostly through silent nods with other closeted gay men. I’m reminded of a line in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: “I have a lot of love to give; I just don’t know where to put it.” Ennis and Jack cannot quit each other but they also tragically can never fully commit to one another, at least without any threat of ostracism or death. That’s the power of Brokeback, that it shows you these simple men, shows you their love, and then won’t let that happy ending ever manifest that we yearn for. When we reach our somber, haunting conclusion there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater, mine included. Brokeback Mountain is a love story that won’t let itself be happy, and that’s what provides all the kicks to the gut and lumps in your throat.

I think some of the more hostile criticism of Brokeback Mountain is because of how normal Jack and Ennis are presented. Neither is a swishy stereotype, neither is any less of a man, and that notion probably terrifies the homophobes:  “Well, they look normal, and if they get gay then maybe I will too!” That’s a shame really, because those ignorant few will miss out on a powerful, sweeping, complex, aching love story with fantastic acting. Ledger and Gyllenhaal will make you feel every moment of joy, every moment of pain, and every lingering conflict on what makes them whom they are. Lee stressed that he wanted to show the world a love story where you really felt that love was an uncontrollable force. His heartfelt, touching film is a revolution for being a normal love story, albeit with two classic Marlboro men. There is no propaganda, no gay agenda, but perhaps the film will open people’s eyes and strip away any narrow definitions we have toward the ownership of love. Brokeback Mountain set out to merely tell a good story, not change the world. It’s accomplished the first part and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark discussion, debate, and lasting memories to lay groundwork for the second.

Nate’s Grade: A
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